In my opinion, the two most useful features that have been added to Safari 5 are the extensions API and Safari Reader. For those who may not know, Safari Reader is basically an Instapaper-like reformatting of page content to remove extraneous elements and focus on presenting the actual meat of the page: the article. It also merges multi-page articles into a single extended view so that navigating from page to page is no longer necessary.
At least one staffer at Ars Technica has gone out of his gourd over this feature. He complains that Apple is being hypocritical by providing users a means of blocking ads on the web while building an unblockable ad framework into their mobile OS. However, I feel that the author, his like-minded co-workers at Ars, and the innumerable knee-jerk anti-Apple commenters are missing several key points that distinguish what Apple has done in Safari 5 from what they’re doing with iAds in such a way as to make the two situations incomparable.
First, Apple is not blocking ads with Safari Reader. They’re still loading the page in its entirety and serving that to the user with the option of then going into what is basically a super-accessible “printer friendly” view to read the content of the page. Considering how piss-poor some website layouts are when it comes to presenting content over irrelevant material (multiple navigation sidebars, inline and sidebar ads, overlay ads, intellitext bubble ads) from a reader’s perspective, this is a welcome addition to the web.
Ars argues that since Safari Reader auto-loads every page of a multi-page article in rapid succession, ad providers are likely to discount impressions on later pages as robo-loads designed to artificially inflate a site’s ad usage statistics. This is where Ars has a semi-valid point, but ultimately the widespread implementation of multipage articles on the web trumps whatever altruistic pro-advertising stance they may wish to take. While Ars argues that somehow, by definition, multipage articles are only those articles that are more expensive to produce (using their 24-page Snow Leopard review as an example), the simple fact of the matter is that many websites are already artificially inflating their site’s ad usage statistics by breaking even modestly-sized articles up across multiple pages, to the point where it has become a pain for users to actually read the content they came to see (how many “top 10 X” articles have you seen that are needlessly split into 10 one-paragraph pages loaded down with multiple ad placements?).
I do not fault Ars for breaking their Snow Leopard review up into 24 different pages. In fact, I tend not to fault Ars much for any of their multi-page articles, because they are well-implemented. Each page has a generous amount of content on it, a comparatively small number of ads, and the splits are done in such a way as to improve the readability of the article as a whole by reducing page size into manageable chunks. I would certainly not want to see a single-page article the length of their Snow Leopard review (and entertainingly, I just checked… Reader won’t be offered when viewing that review in the first place!). That’s just mentally and visually daunting. Still, the side effect of this decision to be intelligent about how they serve their content means I’m less likely to use Safari Reader when viewing an Ars article. In the end, Ars wins more ad revenue from me by doing the right thing with its content, while people who are already doing their best to game the system by making their content hard to access are going to be the losers because people will essentially be voting with their wallets by activating Safari Reader to get the whole Top 10 Most Awesome LOLcats of 2009 article on one freaking page.
Secondly, Ars is making a false equivalency argument when it comes to the nature of what ads Apple is willing to support and what it’s willing to “block”. Setting aside the fact that Apple is not blocking any ads with Reader, and that ad impressions on multipage articles are being discounted by the ad provider based on past abusive behavior, there is a fundamental difference between web ads and ads in applications that the author seems to be missing, either unintentionally or willfully.
Ads in applications have always been unblockable (at least by the average user… people who know how to use the hosts file and configure their router to block requests to specific domains are the exception to the rule here), whether they’re on the desktop or the mobile device, but have also been comparatively tame and tolerable for most users. If you want to get rid of them, you generally have to pay for that ability, and that ability is (usually) provided. Ads on the web – by their very nature – are much easier to block, and due to the abusive extremes web advertising has been taken to, people tend to be much more inclined to block them first and ask questions never.
Thus, asking Apple to provide an opt-out switch for iAds is inconsistent with years of general ad practices in applications. Beyond that, it would put Apple at a competitive disadvantage on their own platform, as other ad networks already provide unblockable ads in iOS applications which Apple would get absolutely reamed for if they tried to allow users to block against the wishes of the developers or ad networks.
Honestly, I just don’t see anything intellectually dishonest or hypocritical in Apple’s actions on both Safari and the iOS when it comes to ads. Apple is driven by a desire to give users the best possible user experience. In their opinion, existing ad platforms “suck”, not just for users, but for developers as well, who aren’t getting as much value out of existing advertising as maybe they could. So, to improve the user experience on their mobile devices, they’re offering their own ad platform. In the opinion not just of Apple but also of many web users, reading stuff on the web “sucks” too, depending on where you go to read it. So, to improve the user experience on the web, Apple provides Safari Reader as a way to get around efforts made by obtuse web developers and content producers to make actually viewing their content as odious as possible in a desperate (and in my opinion, self-defeating) attempt to drive up ad revenue.
To be clear, I don’t think Apple is in any way trying to be altruistic towards web users by building Safari Reader. It is, however, an entirely intended consequence of selfishly trying to make something they themselves enjoy using, and then sharing it. At the end of the day, stuff like this improves their profits by providing a better user experience than their competitors, which is all that really matters, corporately speaking. However, I don’t think Apple is being intentionally antagonistic towards advertisers or the people who use them on their websites as a whole, nor do I think they’re being hypocritical in their behavior. They’re just being incidentally antagonistic towards ad networks and websites that are already being antagonistic toward their readers, and even then only in one small metric (multipage articles) whose real-world use in no way matches up to Ars Technica’s altruistic “multipage articles cost more to produce, and so require more ad revenue” argument. While this may be true (and entirely acceptable) for their multipage content, the web as a whole has an entirely different reason for creating such content: it artificially drives up page views on content that’s no more expensive to produce than Ars’ “etc” posts, and that’s just fsking annoying.
In the end, Safari Reader continues the fine browser tradition of empowering users, and will likely have even less of an impact on actual ad revenues than the invention of the pop-up blocker. Bringing iAds into the argument is nothing but a non sequitur which ignores the differences in advertising usage and history across two very different platforms. It also ignores the present realities of mobile advertising, and the proposed solution would put Apple at a competitive disadvantage at best (by only blocking iAds), and draw the ire of its competitors and developers at worst (by allowing users to block all ad platforms). Pretending that Google isn’t up to the same practice with Android, and not tearing them a new one as a result, is just downright disingenuous.